Discover your meaning by reduction, not addition
Most advice about “finding your purpose” is additive.
“Volunteer, travel, read, surround yourself with diverse people”.
This post presents an alternative, reductive approach. Removing external influence and desire until only internal desire remains. Because, in the end, isn’t your “meaning” just what you intrinsically want to do?
In this post:
- Limitations of the additive approach
- The reductive approach to discovering your meaning
- Final thoughts
If you already know your meaning, this post will put it to a stress test. Is your meaning actually your meaning, or have external factors had their way with it?
If you don’t know your meaning, this post offers an actionable way to find it.
Limitations of the additive approach
The additive approach suggests you haven’t found your meaning/purpose yet, but if you just keep on looking, you’ll find it.
And this approach is mainstream for the same reason the idea of a soulmate is mainstream: we want to believe there’s something out there that will make us happy forever.
“I will choose to be unhappy until one day - miraculously - my life purpose presents itself to me” is a sure way to live an unhappy life.
Why the additive approach is dangerous:
1. You’re sold the illusion of meaning
University will claim meaning comes from good grades, companies claim meaning comes from work hours, political parties claim meaning comes from defending their values.
Of course, they have their own motives.
If you think meaning can be given to you, you’re easily persuadable.
2. The advice comes with something extra
Any “discover your purpose like this” advice reveals more about them than you.
A businessperson may tell you creating an impact and making money is meaningful. And that may be legit advice for them, not you necessarily.
And besides, if you valued making money or a huge impact, wouldn’t you be inclined towards that already? If you spend your free time reading fiction or gaming, and someone tells you a meaningful life is to build a 10-figure business, should you listen to them or yourself?
The advice is filtered through their value system. It comes with their assumptions. Your life shouldn’t be based on other people’s values.
If you have no clue what you want, why would some random person on the internet know better? If you waste your life doing something that doesn’t bring you meaning, they won’t be accountable - they don’t even know you exist.
There is no one meaning of life - if there were, we'd all be slaves to it.
Figure out your own damn meaning, it can’t be handed to you.
The reductive approach to discovering your meaning
Meaning is a deeply personal thing; you need to do the work yourself.
The reductive approach is not about doing more and looking and searching until you find your meaning. Instead, we’re assuming you already got it in you, but external influences and expectations have come in the way.
In other words, external desire drowns internal desire, and by removing the external desire, you can find meaning. When we remove the distractions, the important stuff remains.
So how can we do this?
Scenario 1: You know what makes you happy
Example: you like drawing
“But that can’t be my ‘meaning’ - I can’t make money out of it.”
=> If it makes you happy, it doesn’t need to make you money (but it can).
“But my mom won’t be proud if I spend my life drawing.”
=> If it makes you happy, it doesn’t need to make anyone else happy.
“But isn’t a life purpose supposed to be grander?”
=> If it’s what you naturally want to do, isn’t it better than forcing yourself to do something that fits the “conventional” box of life purpose?
Isn’t it better to actually live a happy life vs having everyone think your life is meaningful but you hate it?
Remove expectations, external influences and excuses, and it should be pretty clear what you want to spend your life doing.
You may not notice your passions consciously because they are integral to your life by now, so you could check what you do in your free time, who you follow on Twitter/YouTube, consider what you’d do if you didn’t need to worry about anything...
But if you’re blanking out:
Scenario 2: You don’t know what makes you happy
To figure out your internal desire, let’s remove external desire.
External desire being your need to:
- Be better than others
- Be famous or seen as smart/cool/important
- Amass money and material possessions
That’s not you speaking. It’s society speaking through you.
The best way to remove external desire is to remove external stimuli. In other words, tuning out society while you explore yourself.
If you can disappear for a month to a cabin in the woods, you can do that. But that’s not for everybody, and it’s not a permanent solution.
So I propose you start by removing your exposure to social cues.
Mimetic theory states that you desire something just because others desire it. Is it really a coincidence that when I ask you to picture your “ideal lifestyle”, you’re probably thinking about big houses and expensive clothes, maybe you chilling on a yacht?
And this theory isn’t limited to material stuff. Ask yourself, do you like to travel intrinsically or just because people on social media like to travel? (More specifically, they use travelling as a signaling mechanism but the point remains)
Do you want a dog intrinsically or because you’ve seen too many dog videos?
It’s tough to know what you desire and what others desire, but what we can do is reduce exposure to other people’s desires. Cut back on social media, those TV shows that romanticize a certain profession or lifestyle, stop seeing ads and influencer posts....
You know how if you haven’t eaten chocolate for 2 years, you won’t crave it anymore? I believe most desire is like this. So let’s cut back on chocolate for a while.
But we’re not done yet. Because you’ve been exposed to external influences for so long, much of it still lives inside your mind, even if you’ve done the above.
So now we must monitor our thoughts and point out which thoughts are ours and which are external.
It’s nothing too fancy. Whenever you have a thought, label it as “external” or “internal”. You don’t need to try and limit the external thoughts - you can’t - and you don’t need to twist or try to control them. Just label them, see what’s you and what’s not, and you’ll be able to make better decisions.
You’ll notice something like “oh yeah, I’ve always enjoyed exercising - but I’ve neglected it for external reasons…” or “true… I don’t actually care about having a big house and whiskey glasses, that’s a society thought, I just need a pen and paper to be happy, or a good book and hot chocolate”.
But you can only figure that out when you stop and reflect, instead of chasing the next thing that's supposed to "bring you meaning".
- Remove external stimuli by changing your external environment
- Remove external influence by changing your internal environment (label your thoughts and goals)
=> This is the reductive approach to discovering your meaning. Removing external desire (created by society) until only internal desire remains (this is your meaning).
And what you find may not feel super meaningful all the time. Even if I loved exercising, tomorrow’s session is just another session.
But if I vision myself on my deathbed and look back, what would I want my life to consist of? Meaning and passion and purpose are such big concepts that we won’t see them clearly until we look at the big picture.
If you have doubts about your meaning, see if those doubts are external (they likely are) and ignore them.
If your concerns are internal - like “does this really make me happy?” or “what parts of this make me unhappy?” - reflect on those concerns and take ownership of your own fulfillment.
Create and shape your own meaning instead of letting society shape it for you. It’s hard work to choose for yourself, to go against social cues and to ignore excuses… but it’s 100% better than the alternative.
To find your meaning, invert the conventional advice.
Instead of adding more things to your life, reduce.
Instead of doing more research or watching TED talks, look within yourself and ignore external influences.
Instead of trying to make a big impact on society, just make yourself happy. (When you’re happy, you’re more likely to make an impact anyway - but beware that “impact” is a society thought)
We should normalize doing things just for yourself. I don’t talk about selfishness, but about being okay if you don’t chase eternal fame or riches.
Now, of course there’s nuance to this advice, as there is to everything. Let me introduce some of it here:
I’m not saying that no one intrinsically wants to be a product manager at Facebook and everyone should only contribute to themselves. The job could be very meaningful to someone, or at least more meaningful than an alternative job. At worst, it pays well and gives the means to pursue your meaning outside of work.
And I’m not saying that being driven by external influences is bad. I believe most great accomplishments are at least partially driven by those.
Winning an Olympic medal => driven partially by status / fame, rather than solely the desire to move or improve oneself.
Product manager at Facebook => driven partially by money / status.
But if you’re in it just for external reasons, you’re not going to stick with it and won’t achieve great things. Every great football player is great not because they thought “wow, pro footballers make lots of money and become famous, I’ll become one”, but because they are in love with the sport.
Paradox: If you’re in it for the external stuff, you won’t get it.
So even though we perhaps shouldn’t remove all external influence, the main point still remains:
You need to find your internal desire first. Do that by reduction, not addition.
(If you try this approach, I’d love to hear about your experience)